Option 4: Project 2: Gaps and Spaces: Viewing task

Ian McKeever

Experienced educator… regular teacher at Slade… Watch the video below:


I transcribed (roughly) the interview:

A good painting doesn’t give you an answer, it blocks you off… you are seduced into them but then they push you back out again… it’s a constant push/pull… really good paintings don’t reveal everything.

In the studio when you’re working on a painting… every morning it should take you by surprise… my god, what is this?! I’ve never painted on this before. Life is ever changing and it’s impossible to even repeat what you’ve just said (even if you use the same words the inflection will change) yet as humans we have this illusion of quasi stability.

I would never paint a painting in one go… it heats it up too much. Everybody thinks painting is about space but it’s much more about time… I try to wed time to the painting. People think painting is all about space and physical presence but it’s also about latent time inside the painting. I try and slow that time down and even if a painting is going well (especially if it’s going very well) I will stop and put it aside for 3 to 4 months… then bring it out again… let it sit for 3 to 4 days… and think where do we go now? If I can’t think what to do with it then it may be finished. A painting finishes itself, I just have to be aware of the moment.

The American Abstract Expressionists had a symposium and the question was asked… How do you know when a painting is finished? Franz Kleine answered… The problem is not to finish, the problem is to start a painting. I don’t think about finishing a painting, they finish themselves.

I’ve no interest in figurative painting – abstract painting has to do with something suggested – something hinted at – an abstract painting doesn’t feel completely alien – at the same time you can’t put your finger on what is familiar. There are enough table and chairs and people in the world. Why do you have to paint them? We don’t have to paint them, especially with other new art forms like video and photography which also make art and reproduce things. The question now is how to work with painting which is a way of making something very specific to painting that none of the other media can do – a sense of something – of making something that can’t be made in any other way, that is authentic to painting and purely to painting.

Talking about his exhibition ‘Twelve Standing and Three’ he said:

My impetus was the human figure… if we meet somebody once for 2-3 minutes, and never see them again… and somebody asks what they were like we have no visual memory of anything specific like eye or hair colour, but we do have a very strong sense of their physical being and the energies that person has. We have a ‘feel’ of that person – a life force – I’m trying to find an analogy to that in painting and invest a painting with a life force… with a personality.

Twelve-Standing III, 2009-2010, Oil and acrylic on cotton-duck, 270 x 190 cm

How do you personify a painting in the way you personify a person? Is the person bigger than the canvas and trying to get out? Or being squeezed in by the canvas? Or by shrinking into the canvas? How do you make a painting that has some of the attributes – that breathes in and out… and has human qualities.

Three (based on the painting below which McKeever saw in Sienna.)

Duccio di Buoninsegna, Maestà of Duccio, Tempera and gold on wood, altarpiece: 213 cm × 396 cm

Three, 2013 – 2014. A group of 4 paintings. Oil and acrylic on linen or Oil and acrylic on cotton-duck. 270 x 480cm (in 3 parts). First exhibited in ‘Ian McKeever, Twelve-Standing and Three’ Horsens Kunstmuseum, 2014

I used the visual structure as an impetus for form… a central figure with two other forms on the outside… but not dwell on the visual as it pulls back to the pictorial and I’m not interested in the pictorial. No overt religious reference.

When painting try to leave every mark and gesture (not cover anything up) – nothing obscured – lots of very thin layers – if too heavy or dense will throw the canvas away and start over. 1st 3 or 4 paintings of a new group are usually thrown away because not got the feel right.

Important a work has openness and transparency – not so dense as can’t see into it.

Not interested in painting for novelty – to be different or interesting – trying to get back to the core of painting – trying to reach that small area to do with figuration and abstraction – how to make a painting autonomous to itself… and can’t exist in any other form (than a painting).

Trying to slow the viewer down – take the heat out of looking – everything now is digital… in digital world everything is fast moving – painting can function in a different way. Trying to take all the speed out of the visual world of looking – put the viewer in front of the painting. Some young people in galleries look at every single painting and sculpture through the viewfinder of a camera.

Painting a metaphor for reality – (if you) look through a camera you have stopped seeing the real thing – only seeing what’s in the camera. We’re moving into the world of the surrogate. 1st hand experience replaced by the digital world – there is a desire for primary experience – looking at a landscape… holding a rock in your hand… hugging a tree… perhaps that’s going in same way as experience of looking at a painting is going? For me it is profoundly important to hold on to the primary experience of looking at a painting.

All paintings, irrespective of when they were painted, still have the possibility for us to come to them anew – for us to see them for the first time – that’s what I’m trying to do – trying to say – just look at this (the painting) for the first time.

When painting – leave paintings in a state whereby (it’s as if) I’ve seen it for the first time – it’s still a mystery to me and I still don’t understand it. If I can bring that mystery to the viewer… and sense of openness… they might come to the painting and think… Oh… I see this for the first time! That’s enough – that’s the only thing paintings can do now.

Find out about his methods and ideas:

His methods and ideas are covered in the transcript above but I’ll pull them together here:

Methods:

Close up of work showing drips, pouring, masking and overpainting.

  1. His work is grounded… he works in response to something outside himself such as a visual stimulus (Maestà) for Three or capturing a personality inside a canvas as in his series 12 Standing.

  2. He works in series – three paintings for Three and twelve for 12 Standing.

  3. He uses acrylic and oil. Many artists use acrylic as a quick way of laying down large areas of colour that they work into with oil. However without seeing the paintings themselves it is difficult to tell how he combines these two mediums… close up surface looks dull so he may use acrylic on top of oil?

  4. He uses thin diluted paint which he paints, splashes, drips and pours onto the canvas.

  5. He uses masking as on the circles.

  6. Overpainting is kept to a minimum giving the paintings a clean open look.

  7. These are large canvas canvases but he also works on smaller paper ones… presumably for the collector’s market.

  8. He works on a painting for a few days then puts it away for several months.

  9. The painting tells him when it’s finished.

  10. He paints the unknown and is always surprised by the result.

Ideas:

  1. Trying to capture time.

  2. Wants painting to seduce then expel the viewer.

  3. Paintings have an autonomy of their own.

  4. Use medium to do what only painting can do.

  5. Looking at paintings is a metaphor for reality… needs to be a primary experience like hugging a tree or holding a stone in your hand, not a secondary experience like looking through a lens.

  6. Slowing down the visual experience.

  7. Bring mystery and openness to the viewer.

  8. The problem is starting a painting, not finishing it.

Select one of his paintings and make a close analysis of it:

Three, 2013 – 2014. A group of 4 paintings. Oil and acrylic on linen or Oil and acrylic on cotton-duck. 270 x 480cm (in 3 parts). First exhibited in ‘Ian McKeever, Twelve-Standing and Three’ Horsens Kunstmuseum, 2014

In his interview he said he didn’t want to dwell on the visual similarity between the ‘source’ painting and his group of four paintings because it pulls us back to the pictorial (which he’s trying to avoid). This is not surprising as structurally – at the most basic level – the paintings are identical.

This simple structure, almost like a stripe painting (with three equal vertical stripes) is very reductive and ‘dulls’ the painting because it destroys internal movement over the picture plane. It becomes almost like three boxes on a supermarket shelf full of fruit (but in this case shapes) rather than a complex work of art. Not only does it echo the physical structure of Maestà with the two outer panels and a centre panel, but it also ‘copies’ the pictorial composition by placing the circles (as subject) in his central ‘panel’ and the background (the angels) in the two outer panels… structurally it is a figurative painting.

It’s very hard to get beyond this structure which imprisons the brushwork and pushes the painting towards decoration… the brushstrokes, drips and pours become individual notes like an orchestra tuning up without a score or conductor. A meaningless cacophony of (exquisitely rendered) violin notes, drum roles, and piano chords.

Compared to his 12 Standing these four paintings are very weak.

Maybe, because they were in response to a pictorial source (rather than a psychological one) he responded pictorially? He’s a psychological painter… driven by mystery and intrigue… personification and autonomy.

Whatever the reason, Three is stillborn.

Consider his views on painting and how far they resonate with your own aspirations

  1. A good painting doesn’t give you an answer, it blocks you off… you are seduced into them but then they push you back out again… it’s a constant push/pull… really good paintings don’t reveal everything.

Most figurative paintings give you an answer, they are a tree, a landscape or a face. However, they can also be beautiful and sublime… intriguing and mysterious… happy or sad… as well as many other things.

But almost by definition an abstract doesn’t give you an answer, it sucks you in and pushes you out.

2. In the studio when you’re working on a painting… every morning it should take you by surprise… my god, what is this?! I’ve never painted on this before.

I partly agree.

When I am living with a painting in the studio it is like getting to know a friend… you slowly build a relationship. Each morning you see them they are slightly different, but not totally unknown.

I am never making a preconceived painting, I’m not realising a preconceived image or following a process.

3. I would never paint a painting in one go… it heats it up too much.

I think overriding natural human feelings for an ideology is nearly always a bad idea, whether this is in politics such as a theocratic state, fascism, a populist government mistreating immigrants… or making rules about how you treat a painting in the studio.

So, I would be guided by how I feel about a painting rather than follow a rule. Some paintings will work in one go… and some will take months.

4. People think painting is all about space and physical presence but it’s also about latent time inside the painting.

This is a very interesting concept.

Painting is a physical object and has a presence… figurative paintings have ‘real’ illusional space and abstract paintings have space in/on the picture plane as a compositional tool… but time is trickier.

When I look at a landscape painting I don’t see latent time, I see a landscape. It is a very similar experience to looking at a real landscape.

However, when I see a person I see latent time as part of who they are… How old are they?… How have their life experiences moulded them? Abstract paintings have an element of this, they are not a ‘view’, they are an autonomous object and somehow time is part of what they are.

5. Even if a painting is going well (especially if it’s going very well) I will stop and put it aside for 3 to 4 months… then bring it out again… let it sit for 3 to 4 days… and think where do we go now?

No, I wouldn’t submit myself to rule based painting. I am not a conceptual or ideological artist. I would come come to a decision based on experience, feeling and intuition.

6. If I can’t think what to do with it then it may be finished. A painting finishes itself, I just have to be aware of the moment.

I am never trying to make something preconceived and paintings can often go through cycles of looking better and worse… the painting is finished when it has nothing left to say, like a conversation that has come to a natural conclusion. I just have to be empathetic to the moment when it wants to be left in peace.

7. The American Abstract Expressionists had a symposium and the question was asked… How do you know when a painting is finished? Franz Kleine answered… The problem is not to finish, the problem is to start a painting.

I agree… to create a painting solely by mark making, where one mark triggers another, can become decorative because it’s a visual reaction to a visual stimulus. But equally, to try to ‘say’ something (even if you don’t know what form it will take) means I’m making something preconceived.

The problem is to make marks that are the embryo of an autonomous painting that I can then wrestle into existence.

How do you make those first marks? Where do they come from?

That’s the hard part.

8. I’ve no interest in figurative painting – abstract painting has to do with something suggested – something hinted at – an abstract painting doesn’t feel completely alien – at the same time you can’t put your finger on what is familiar.

Yes, I agree.

An abstract painting should look familiar and strange at the same time, the kind of feeling you get in the street when you think you know somebody really well but can’t remember where you met them.

9. The question now is how to work with painting which is a way of making something very specific to painting that none of the other media can do – a sense of something – of making something that can’t be made in any other way, that is authentic to painting and purely to painting.

I think this is an oversimplification as painted visual images are not like photographs… a Van Gogh, Hockney or Rembrandt portrait all do something unique (that I couldn’t do with a camera).

However, photography can capture a ‘likeness’ so has some similarity to a painted portrait… but there are things that only paint can do because of its particular materiality.

Every material be it wood, stone, concrete, oil paint, ink, photographic paper has unique qualities… just as they have many qualities that overlap. Plus you have artists like Rodin who had a ‘factory’ production line to turn his clay sculptures into marble… all the marble sculptures are copies (simulacrum) and yet they have high status as ‘unique’ art.

10. We have a ‘feel’ of that person – a life force – I’m trying to find an analogy to that in painting and invest a painting with a life force… with a personality.

Many artists have said that their work stands apart from them, that they don’t know what they have created, and send it out to make its own way in the world. Others have a political agenda and try and tell the viewer what they are seeing and what it means. Others still, mainly experts and critics, tell us how to ‘read’ a painting, be that psychologically, politically, socially or in some other way.

I would like my paintings to be autonomous and have a life of their own.

11. How do you make a painting that has some of the attributes – that breathes in and out… and has human qualities.

By making a painting that has a life of its own.

If I make a painting that is representative of something, or that I know what I am making then it will always be part of me… it will be a product. However, If I allow a painting to come through me (without controlling it or knowing what it is) then it has a chance of having human qualities.

12. I’m not interested in the pictorial.

If I am copying an image I can’t be creative because I’m not in the moment.

13. When painting try to leave every mark and gesture (not cover anything up) – nothing obscured – lots of very thin layers – if too heavy or dense will throw the canvas away and start over.

I wouldn’t want to box myself in a corner by saying there was only one way to paint. I would rather be driven by the needs of my painting than by a rule.

14. Important a work has openness and transparency – not so dense as can’t see into it.

I think some people are dense (in the sense of being complicated and difficult to read) and some are open and transparent. In the same way some paintings are dense, so you struggle to see into them, and some are open. I don’t think you can make rules about how to paint; it depends on what the painting needs.

15. Not interested in painting for novelty – to be different or interesting – trying to get back to the core of painting – trying to reach that small area to do with figuration and abstraction – how to make a painting autonomous to itself… and can’t exist in any other form (than a painting).

Novelty sells but it doesn’t last. It’s like a sugar rush, heady and shallow.

There’s nothing wrong with it; it depends why you are painting. Novelty can earn you a living, can be cute, can be kitsch, can be fun… can be little glass animals at the seaside or covering people in paint and turning them into ‘paintings’… but it isn’t complex, meaningful, deep, engaging, or sublime.

However, the futurists, impressionists and cubists were novel when they first emerged. Every new artist is novel when they first discover their voice… Hockney, Van Gogh, Matisse and Bacon were all novel, as is every artist who first discovers their voice.

By contrast Artists who copy another artist or movement, like cover bands, are not novel, but I don’t think McKeever is saying he wants to copy other artists.

I think what he’s saying is he has artistic integrity… he’s not painting something new for the sake of it being new in order to get attention and make easy sales. He’s saying he loves painting and is a bona fide artist.

16. Trying to slow the viewer down – take the heat out of looking – everything now is digital… in digital world everything is fast moving – painting can function in a different way. Trying to take all the speed out of the visual world of looking – put the viewer in front of the painting. Some young people in galleries look at every single painting and sculpture through the viewfinder of a camera.

It is perhaps more complicated and generational. Modes of behaviour and looking change, and today young people engage with the world through digital images; it’s part of the way they process information. Yet there is also a strong movement towards mindfulness and nature which involves slow looking too.

Seeing/relating to a painting as an autonomous object with a physical presence is totally different to processing it as a digitally mediated image on a screen… the best way would be to have the painting on your wall and live with it… but it’s maybe an easy call to condemn looking at gallery paintings through a camera lens? After all that’s how many ‘young’ people navigate the world and process new experiences.

‘Trying to slow the viewer down’ is an over simplification of a complex social and generational change.

17. Painting a metaphor for reality – (if you) look through a camera you have stopped seeing the real thing – only seeing what’s in the camera. We’re moving into the world of the surrogate. 1st hand experience replaced by the digital world – there is a desire for primary experience – looking at a landscape… holding a rock in your hand… hugging a tree… perhaps that’s going in same way as experience of looking at a painting is going? For me it is profoundly important to hold on to the primary experience of looking at a painting.

This too is problematic.

It is easy to be judgemental of the Chinese for visiting a Disney style mock up of Venice rather than having the ‘primary experience’ by visiting Venice… or from people watching in situ cameras of a desolate beach … but often that is the only way of sharing ‘premium’ experiences. The screen is how many people access/mediate the world, so (for them) it is a ‘primary’ experience.

And how real is a painting glimpsed in a gallery among hundreds of others? Is it very different to a cruise ship docking off Venice for a day?

On the other hand having the primary experience of meeting somebody, going down the pub, having days out, chatting over coffee… and getting to know them is utterly different to seeing their photograph on the news.

Looking at a painting in a gallery with your bare eyes, rather than through a camera lens, is a very different experience. But I have had a privileged education and am a painting undergraduate.

I think it’s a good thing people are in the gallery however they access the paintings.

But thinking about this has also made me question the notion of what and who art is for and how it is consumed; prints of art, art on t-shirts… and how only the few can afford high quality art as an ‘autonomous’ object in their house.

18. All paintings, irrespective of when they were painted, still have the possibility for us to come to them anew – for us to see them for the first time – that’s what I’m trying to do – trying to say – just look at this (the painting) for the first time.

For any unknown painting, I agree.

Like a Shakespeare play, paintings are made by a human and we share humanity with them. We have a connection with their work whether we see it through our own personal and historical filter… or whether we try to ‘read’ it like an historical document.

But, like a friend, if we know a painting well I don’t think we can see it with new eyes… unless there is a change that makes us see it anew.

If we haven’t seen a painting for a long time we will have changed and we will see the painting differently.

19. When painting – leave paintings in a state whereby (it’s as if) I’ve seen it for the first time – it’s still a mystery to me and I still don’t understand it. If I can bring that mystery to the viewer… and sense of openness… they might come to the painting and think… Oh… I see this for the first time! That’s enough – that’s the only thing paintings can do now.

I’m ambiguous towards this… on the one hand I agree because I don’t know what I’m painting, but I recognise when it is finished. At that point I shift from creator to viewer and ‘see’ the painting for the first time. It is a mystery to me and need to get to know it.

However, I think a painting is much more than a mystery.

I could loosely term my practice abstract expressionism, and when I spent time with Rothko’s paintings at the Tate they were so much more than mysterious. They were autonomous and life affirming, meditative and sublime… like life in a bottle.

In a tiny way, that’s what I’d like to paint.

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